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The Electric Car’s Short Circuit

PRAGUE – For decades, the idea of the electric car has captured the imaginations of innovators – including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison more than a century ago. Celebrities, pundits, and political leaders alike have cast these vehicles as the apotheosis of an environmentally responsible future. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proclaimed that there will be a million electric cars on the Autobahn by 2020. President Barack Obama has likewise promised a million electric cars in the United States – but five years sooner.

Someday, the electric car will, indeed, be a great product – just not now. It costs too much; it is inconvenient; and its environmental benefits are negligible (and, in some cases, non-existent).

Many developed countries provide lavish subsidies for electric cars: amounts up to $7,500 in the US, $8,500 in Canada, €9,000 ($11,700) in Belgium, and €6,000 even in cash-strapped Spain. Denmark offers the most lavish subsidy of all, exempting electric cars from the country’s marginal 180% registration tax on all other vehicles. For the world’s most popular electric car, the Nissan Leaf, this exemption is worth €63,000.

Yet this is clearly not enough. In Denmark, there are still only 1,224 electric cars. In Germany, car sales totaled 3.2 million in 2011, but only 2,154 were electric.